Egyptians turned out in large numbers yesterday to vote on a draft constitution after weeks of turmoil that have set its Islamist supporters against secularists who fear it will usher in religious rule.
Some 120,000 army troops were deployed to join the police guarding polling stations and state institutions after clashes between President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters and opponents over the past three weeks left at least 10 people dead and about 1,000 wounded. There was unrest last night as Islamists attacked the opposition Wafd party’s newspaper offices in central Cairo with petrol bombs, security sources said.
Two people were injured and firefighters said they had put out the flames, a witness said.
The referendum is the culmination of almost two years of debate over the post-revolutionary identity of Egypt after the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
The vote has increasingly centred on a dispute over whether Egypt should move toward an Islamic state under Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Salafist allies, or one that retains secular traditions and an Islamic character.
However many Egyptians who voted yesterday said they were simply looking for stability.
Many also fear the newly empowered Brotherhood and allied Salafists are taking advantage of their current political dominance to adopt a constitution that will be almost impossible to amend.
According to the draft charter, articles 217 and 218 state that the president and parliament have the right to make a “request” to “amend an article or more”. Parliament must discuss this request within 30 days. Two thirds of MPs are needed to pass such a request. Then parliament has 60 days to finalise the amendments, and a third of parliament is required to approve the final text before putting changes to a national referendum.
“The times of silence are over,” bank employee Essam el-Guindy said as he queued to vote in Cairo’s Zamalek district. “I am not OK with the constitution. Morsi should not have let the country split like this.”
El-Guindy was one of about 20 men standing in line. A separate women’s queue was twice as long. Elsewhere in the city, hundreds of voters waited outside polling stations for nearly two hours before they opened at 8am local time.
“I read parts of the constitution and saw no reason to vote against it,” said voter Rania Wafik. “We need to move on and I just see no reason to vote against the constitution.”
Morsi, whose narrow win in June made him Egypt’s first freely elected president, cast his ballot at a school in the Heliopolis district. He did not speak to reporters, but waved to dozens of supporters chanting his name outside.
In Cairo’s crowded Sayedah Zeinab district, home to a Muslim shrine, 23-year-old engineer Mohammed Gamal said he was voting “yes” although he felt the proposed constitution needed more, not less, Islamic content.
“Islam has to be a part of everything,” said Gamal. “All laws have to be in line with Sharia,” he said.
Critics are questioning the draft constitution’s legitimacy after a majority of judges said they would not oversee yesterday’s vote. Rights groups have also warned of opportunities for widespread fraud, and the opposition has said a decision to hold the vote on two separate days to make up for the lack of judges to oversee the process leaves the door open for initial results to sway voter opinion.
The shortage of judges was reflected in the chaos at some polling stations, which by early afternoon had led the election commission to extend voting by two hours until 9pm.
Mohammed Ahmed, a retired army officer from Cairo, said men he suspects of being Muslim Brotherhood members were whispering “vote yes” to men standing in line outside a polling centre in Cairo’s poor district of Arab el-Maadi.
“The Brotherhood wants to turn Egypt into its own fiefdom,” he said. “I have no confidence in the whole process and I know they will be able to forge the results,” he said.
Egypt has 51 million eligible voters, half of whom were supposed to cast their ballots yesterday and the rest next week.
Yesterday’s vote was held in ten provinces, including Cairo and the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, the country’s second largest city and the scene of violent clashes on Friday between opponents and supporters of Morsi.
Critics have raised concerns over issues including Islamic law and women’s rights:
Sharia (Islamic) law
Like a previous constitution, the draft states, “principles of Islamic Sharia are the principal source of legislation”.
The draft mentions women in the framework of the traditional Muslim family.
The draft contains language referring to public morals and values, implying that Islamic law would be the determining factor.
The draft guarantees the practices of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
The president is the head of the national security council, but the defence minister is the commander in chief of the armed forces.